From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

Jeffrey E. Garten
HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-06-240997-3
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Harnessing globalization for wealth, convenience or security is not an easy task, nor is explaining such ambitions in a few hundred pages. Jeffrey E. Garten analyzes the potential and methods for globalization by selecting ten individuals who collapsed traditional borders and contributed to connecting the world. Readers may initially argue with these choices, but in concluding the book most will respect Garten’s approach.  

The charm of From Silk to Silicon stems from the concise histories from Genghis Khan to Andrew Grove, Garten’s easy and captivating style, and enthusiasm. The experienced scholar of management and globalization admits to happening upon surprises, too, during the course of his research.     

Most of his subjects emerged in politics, industry and trade with some overlap. Most are European, and there is one woman. The patterns are uneven, and achievements hinge upon historical context, emerging technology and keen sense for changing trends. The individuals pursued opportunities without necessarily recognizing the potential or dangers of their undertakings, but ended up connecting the world.

The chosen figures, Garten admits, were more doers and instigators than thinkers or inventors, many more obdurate than visionary. Religion was an afterthought. For example, Prince Henry of Portugal, 1394-1460 – not a sailor himself – launched expeditions from the safety of a castle, repeatedly ordering his crews to push beyond Africa’s treacherous Cape Bojador, then a psychological barrier for European sailors. He also demanded that crews be methodical in mapping voyages, documenting findings and collecting specimens, including the first victims of the global slave trade. Centuries later, toughness and meticulous attention to detail also served Andrew Grove, eventual CEO of Intel Corp. born in 1936, whose oversight led to leaps and bounds growth in the quality of microprocessors, transforming computers into necessities for home and work, and revolutionizing operations for vehicles and appliances. “Grove underlined the idea of an ‘inflection point,’” Garten notes, “a moment, or a period time, when a set of forces are so overwhelming that they compel a fundamental change in the rules of the game for a company or an industry.”   

The individuals were flawed. Garten admits a struggle in comparing standards of civilization over the centuries as contributions lose value over time. He convinces readers to marvel at individuals who globalized with primitive technology.

For example, Garten briefly compares Genghis Khan, 1162-1227, brutal ruler of the Mongolian Empire with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the 20th century. Despite a rough start – banished from his tribe after his father’s murder – Khan conquered a continent, but “did not impose political ideology, or cultural or religious ideas on others but rather created an environment of extreme tolerance, so long as the basic governing regime wasn’t fundamentally challenged and so long as the booty flowed smoothly from the far-flung territories to the Mongolian center.” Thatcher emerged during the twilight years of the British Empire and early years of modern women’s empowerment. Reversing the course of socialism in the United Kingdom, she privatized public firms, reduced taxes and government spending, unlocked borders for trade and investment with a single-mindedness that, Garten notes, “resulted in the decimation of many communities, the impoverishment of many people, sharply rising inequality in an already class-ridden nation” and “opened the floodgates to a version of winner-take-all globalization in which those lacking advantages in education, skills, or social connections suffer greatly.” Thatcher could be replaced by Britain’s Elizabeth I or the early planners of the Roman Empire.

Each individual is a sum of contradictory character traits that might have threatened their legacy. Robert Clive, 1725-1774, wily and corrupt, rose through the ranks of the East India Company while applying military, political, administrative skills to expand British power in Asia – once in power, he demanded reform of others. Another ruthless player, John D. Rockefeller, 1839-1937, developed a global energy company, later forging a path for global philanthropy that created the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller University and other education programs

All Garten’s subjects had talent for recognizing, forming and exploiting networks. Mayer Amschel Rothschild, 1744-1812, emerged from poverty to work with family members as bankers, winning the trust of Europe’s wealthiest families, anticipating the Industrial Revolution and laying the foundation for the international bond market. “The Rothschilds led the development of a sophisticated international bond market not because no one had thought about doing it before but because no one had the capacity – the internal coordination, the logistical capability, the relationships, and the trust among all partners – to make it work in such volumes and with such reliability,” Garten explains. Networks were also crucial for Cyrus Field, 1819-1892, who quickly recognized the value of the first underwater transatlantic cable, rallying cable makers and others while enduring numerous failures before reducing delivery time for such telegraph messages from weeks to seconds.

Finally, those who lead on globalization are not necessarily flamboyant or high-profile. Deng Xiaoping, 1904-1997, who led China through an era of economic reform, is described as “invisible,” respected as an organizer who viewed education, science and technology along with the political discipline of communism as essential for China’s progress. Deng opened the country to foreign trade, after emerging from a prison sentence. Other Chinese leaders blamed foreign influences for China’s decline, but Garten explains that “Deng came to exactly the opposite conclusion… China had to stop blaming foreigners for its problems and to learn all it could from the world, as soon as possible.”

Likewise, Jean Monnet, 1988-1979, was sophisticated, but unassuming while pursuing big goals but not positions of power. “Monnet was driven his whole life by one big idea – the inadequacy of the sovereign state to handle a wide range of contemporary challenges,” Garten notes a fidgety child who left school at 16, Monnet excelled in his family’s cognac business and cultural nuances. Two world wars that devastated Europe convinced him that prosperity required developing the habit of cooperation with “small incremental steps that would build on each other.” Monnet, observing how private competition undermined cooperation during wars and other crises, organized Chinese banks into a consortium, linked Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, and developed plans that eventually led to creation of the European Union. The first president of the European Coal and Steel Community understood how to “gain enormous leverage by crediting others for a powerful idea,” Garten writes. “His genius was in honing big ideas into simple ones….”

The individuals offer lessons for our era, how to do harm or good, and the book will guide readers on how to find their own role models. Governments have more tools than ever before yet confront more global challenges. Leaders are polarized, citizens continue to resist globalization, and Garten calls for judicious balance among the many approaches. The book is a testament to individuals with inspiration, ambition, planning, networking and their refusal to accept failure. From Silk to Silicon is a stirring reminder that individuals can make a difference, if not for the world, then for their families and communities by seeking opportunity in globalization and new technologies.

Susan Froetschel is the managing editor of YaleGlobal Online. She is the author of five novels, including Allure of Deceit and Fear of Beauty, about literacy and charitable giving in Afghanistan. 

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